Mary Beard, Cristina Odone and the terrible legacy of “defensive” women

Women have always had to deal with misogyny, therefore it is ridiculous for individuals to kick up a fuss about it now. This appears to be the argument made by Cristina Odone in her latest Telegraph blog, in which she expresses her sadness at “clever Mary [Beard] […] being stupid” for responding to vicious online attacks:

Come on, Mary. Women in public arenas get a lot of flak – they always have. Think of Livia and Julia back in the time of Augustus. They were attacked for everything they did, simply because they refused to stay in the background and fawn on men. The same is true today. A woman who sticks her head above the parapet – whether it be to present a history programme on the BBC or debate issues on Question Time – is asking for brickbats and (some) bouquets. If she doesn’t have the stomach for it, she should stick to lecturing undergraduates.

So that’s Mary put in her place, although only if you believe that standing up for yourself is the same as not having “the stomach” to deal with aggressive bullying and threats of sexual violence. Odone is convinced these things are indeed the same, claiming that  “Mary Beard’s defensiveness is widespread among women of stature”. Silly Mary Beard, and silly women in general, for lacking the bravery to behave like good girls and suck up whatever nastiness comes their way. 

The history of feminism is littered with examples of weak, defensive, whiney women. Women who got all shrill and uppity when people were a bit mean to them. Women who didn’t take a slap on the arse in the spirit in which it was intended, or who started with the whole but it’s not fa-a-ir! routine upon discovering they were being paid less than their male counterparts. Women who got all wussy about backstreet abortions, domestic violence and sexual assault, and made a huge deal about the fact that once every four or five years they’d not been allowed to put one lousy cross on a piece of paper before stuffing it into a stupid ballot box. Women who lacked Cristina Odone’s bold, brave acceptance of the world, and instead tried to change it. You might think Mary Beard plays no part in it but honestly, that’s where all this moaning and “defensiveness” leads.

Of course, such cowardly women don’t stick their heads above the parapet in the same way that Odone does. While the latter trots out the same old lines in order to encourage womankind to stoically put up with the same old crap, these women go that little bit further (but only because they’re “stupid”). If anything attracts misogyny, it’s standing up to misogynists. Odone glosses over the true nature of the “criticism” thrown Beard’s way, which goes way beyond having one’s looks “mocked” (although Odone indulges in some mocking herself – “the grey hair as wild as a witch, the figure, unselfconsciously plump” – as though Beard is to be admired not for her academic prowess but for daring to be seen in public).

I think it’s brilliant and brave of Beard to respond to this abuse. It makes other women feel more courageous in the face of intimidation. So it lacks a certain nonchalance which, with enough wishful thinking and patriarchal coaxing, can be rebranded as power. So what? That’s not real power, it’s fear. Perhaps the fearful should take stock of their own motives before taking it upon themselves to police the responses of others.

7 thoughts on “Mary Beard, Cristina Odone and the terrible legacy of “defensive” women

  1. It’s not often that I feel the need to post comments relating to online blogs and posts but in this instance I feel that Christie Odone’s comments relating to the Mary Beard situation are not only mistaken but downright dangerous.

    I didn’t read Mary’s blog as a complaint against the criticism of her looks but as a stand against bullying and what was a personal and vitriolic attack against her.

    Like it or not, bullying is a crime of violence, in that it causes mental suffering in the same way that racism, homophobia and misogyny can. We find most acts of violence abhorrent because of the psychological harm that they cause. Indeed the majority of rapes involve little or no physical violence. I assume from her remarks that Christine Odone belongs to the school of thought that says that women who are raped are “asking for it”.

    As you can tell from my name, I am not a woman and by extension not a feminist – I would go further in saying that, often, some feminism can create an atmosphere of “us and them” which is less than productive. I simply believe that we should all make a stand against violence whether physical or psychological. Bullying, in all its forms should not be tolerated. To ignore this fact must inevitably lead to tighter regulation of the internet and the printed word leading to to a lessening of free speech.

    If we are to be allowed to continue to enjoy freedom of expression then we must all use that freedom responsibly.

  2. Disgusting comment from Odene that having women holding an opinion invites the response of brickbats, especially in a society where two women die a week from domestic violence. Democratic societies surely encourage the right of all citizens to hold an informed opinion. Violent suppression of someones opinion based on gender, race, sexuality all equates to some of the vilest bullying, should often be considered as a hate crime and really is to be discouraged if we are to develop and grow into anything resembling a civilization.

  3. Bullying does not go away if you keep quiet. Mary Beard was right to reply and we must carry on the fight against the sort of vitriolic abuse to which she was subjected.

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